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Recruiting tech talent a continual challenge for Charleston industry

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By Barry Waldman

Take a scorching hot industry with jobs growing like kudzu. Add a community pouring resources in to support it. Mix in a shallow pool of highly specialized talent being wooed from one end of the continent to the other. Season with businesses sporting a hefty return on assets that leaves piles of cash to recruit staff. Leaven with a historic city perched on the ocean and providing a glorious quality of life.

What do you get?

You get a challenging environment for recruiting the talent to support Charleston’s growing tech sector, according to people in the business here.

There are some signs on the horizon that provide cause for cautious optimism. In the meantime, however, the scarcity of tech staff is an issue.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the burgeoning Charleston tech community created 9,990 new jobs in the year ending in May 2016, and all signs indicate that number is growing. For a market this size, a lot of that talent has to be imported or produced locally.

The challenges of luring software engineers, coders, programmers and cloud infrastructure experts are so daunting they keep Peggy Anderson and her 12-person human resources staff at Blackbaud thinking creatively every day. They have to fill 1,300 positions locally each year. For many of those positions, they are competing with the Microsofts and Facebooks of the world for candidates.

To keep the pipeline of young talent full, Blackbaud offers paid summer internships to 75 college students in their sophomore year. They keep the students on for three summers, offering them permanent employment during their third summer.

Blackbaud uses social media, referral bonuses and videos showing Charleston’s quality of life to help the software company recruit technology workers to its headquarters on Daniel Island. (Photo/File)Blackbaud pulls out all the stops to find experienced people with a host of technical skills. They’re on LinkedIn and other social media and on tech-oriented career websites with splashy videos touting careers at Blackbaud and life in Charleston. The company gives incentives for employee referrals, the most persuasive and least expensive of all recruitment tools.

Blackbaud targets talent at companies that recruit the same kind of people, poaching those they can. Anderson admits it’s ultimately a zero-sum game, but they have to do everything they can.

She said Blackbaud advertised in the Charleston City Paper during the eclipse because it’s the kind of free publication that people pick up when they visit a city looking for things to do.

In one sense, talent acquisition is getting even more competitive because nearly every company is becoming a tech company to some degree.

“We’re now competing with GE and MUSC, not just with software companies,” Anderson said.

After client acquisition, talent acquisition is the No. 2 business challenge, said Gavin McCulley, president of Morgan 6, a small, Charleston-based software development and cybersecurity company. Despite having a small staff of 13, McCulley said he is constantly on the prowl for skilled team members.

Unlike Blackbaud, Morgan 6 can’t afford to work with recruiting firms or offer generous relocation packages, though the company is now considering the latter.

It’s not all recruitment. Tech firms must build supportive cultures that promote engagement and help retain staff, so that they aren’t constantly attempting to refill a leaking bucket of talent.

Willis Cantey, president of Cantey Tech Consulting, said he doesn’t have difficulty recruiting because there is no scarcity of the help desk skills his company employs. Nonetheless, he says retaining key employees is a critical function of his job.

“It’s not foosball tables or beer pong,” he said. “It’s a place where you can master your craft. You can get better at helping organizations do better with their technology.”

Research shows employees also look for a place where people can feel their work is meaningful. That’s a natural benefit for Blackbaud, whose software helps nonprofit organizations raise money and keep track of it.

“That resonates with millennials,” Anderson said. “They are helping these amazing organizations achieve their missions.”

Another natural benefit for tech companies in Charleston is Charleston. The No. 1 city in the world, according to the readers of Travel & Leisure magazine, it has become a recruitment tool of its own, particularly now that the tech community has reached a critical mass.

“When you have a wide variety of companies, if somebody moves their family across the country and that job doesn’t work out, they have other opportunities to work somewhere else. Otherwise it’s a big risk for the family,” said Stanfield Gray, founder of Dig South and an advocate of the tech economy in Charleston.

Local tech firms are collaborating on Open Source, a marketing campaign to lure talent from around the world, touting the area’s charms and tech opportunities. The website focuses as much on cuisine and real estate as on tech jobs and companies.

The myriad efforts to entice more people with software and cloud skills appear to be paying off. Charleston has been named the top medium-sized market for tech job growth in the country, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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